American Gargoyles: Flannery O'Connor and the Medieval Grotesque

By Anthony Di Renzo | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Gargoyles, Grotesques, and Marginalia: The Hideously Beautiful, Beautifully Hideous Art of Flannery O'Connor

If you judge [the] Gothic by Grecian rules, you will find nothing but deformity, but when you examine it by its own the results are quite different.

-- Bishop Hurd, Letters of Chivalry and Romance

B ERNARD of Clairvaux was outraged by the grotesque carvings on the walls of his monastery's cloister. Their exuberant crudity transgressed all boundaries of good taste. Not only did they mock the solemnity of the cloister itself, but they distracted the younger monks from studying the Scriptures. On the threshold of God's house, in the walled passageway between the sanctity of the chapel and the profanity of the town square, the devil had constructed a carnival of freaks. Bernard denounced these outrageous figures in his famous letter to Abbot William:

What are these ridiculous monstrosities doing in the very cloisters where the monks do their reading, these strange things hideously beautiful and beautifully hideous? What is the meaning of these filthy monkeys; these fierce lions and fearful centaurs; these ugly mutants, spotted tigers, fighting soldiers, and horn-blowing hunters? One sees a head with many bodies and a body with many heads. Here is a beast with a snake for its tail and a fish with the face of a cow. There is a creature which is half-horse and half-goat, and another which is half-goat and half-horse! There is such an amazing variety of shapes all around that one could easily prefer to take one's reading from the walls rather than from a book. ( Bernard of Clairvaux 106; my translation)

The most astonishing thing about Bernard's denunciation is his resentful enchantment with, his grudging appreciation of, the very grotesques he attacks. He is fascinated as well as repelled by them.

-1-

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